Q&A With Jeffery Eugenides
This is the most exquisite book I have ever read; the prose, the descriptive passages! Please let us know where you learned to write. You must have always had this talent, but where, if anywhere, did you study, or did you study creative writing? Your vocabulary is immense!
— Ellie B.
At the resolute age of 15, I decided to become a writer. This was partly the fault of James Joyce. I read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that year, and, full of admiration for Stephen Dedalus and also identifying with him strongly (we were both good students, we both had "prophetic" Greek names), I decided to follow in his path and "forge the uncreated conscious of my race." I hadn't yet read Ulysses, a far more cautionary portrait of the artist, beginning, as it does, with Stephen Dedalus 10 years on, still living in Dublin, and totally broke. My misreading of the Portrait, in fact, was what made me want to become a writer. I missed the irony. I took Stephen's youthful idealism at face value, being so full of it myself at the time.
I was, however, an arty, dreamy, ambitious kid. I'd always enjoyed writing stories and, yes, my teachers claimed I showed "talent." So I set my sights on pursuing a literary life.
It was another 13 years before I published my first short story. Another five passed before my first novel appeared.
What happened in the meantime? The old joke says it best: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice." I approached writing, Ellie, the way you would any profession. First, I tried to educate myself. I went to Brown, mainly because my favorite writer at the time, John Hawkes, taught there, and I wanted to study with him. While there, I majored in the honors program in English, rather than creative writing, because the honors program required you to get the entire English literary tradition under your belt. (You had to read Beowulf in the original, not just Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night.) It seemed to me that anyone hubristic enough to propose adding anything to the literary tradition had best be familiar with it. So I read a lot, read all the time. I read old difficult stuff, as well as recent difficult stuff. I took seven years of Latin. My classics studies introduced me to the literary figure of the hermaphrodite in the person of Tiresias, and I credit Latin with giving me a firm sense of English grammar. I did my best to read the things I thought a novelist should read—philosophy, history, theology. Where I fell short, it seems to me, was in mathematics, chemistry and physics. My knowledge of these subjects is laughable. Biology I liked, and that certainly helped when I came, years later, to write Middlesex. Aside from pursuing these academic subjects, I tried my hand, in my teens and 20s, at writing fiction and poetry. I did indeed study creative writing, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student (at Stanford). Years passed, happily, in bohemian redoubts. I never wanted to publish early. Wasn't at all concerned about it. Virginia Woolf said that no one should publish a novel before he or she was 30. That sounded about right to me.
Like a tennis player, I spent years practicing my strokes, developing my topspin, improving my serve, performing footwork drills and trying to move up in the rankings. Like anything else that's worth doing, writing is mainly hard work. It's dull, repetitive, impractical, often unremunerative, completely maddening, and I love it madly.
— Jeffrey Eugenides